The author on the roof of Mr. Bu’s dojo, with Moondoggy, 1973. Photo courtesy David Nemeth.

Click here for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. — Ed.

It was a “Fagin’s Den.” Mr. Bu’s dim-lit hideaway was dark yet spacious, functional yet austere according to his means and his design. It was part man cave and part tree house for boys. Therein, grunts, sweat, swearing and testosterone dominated the sensory landscape. In addition, ragamuffins and street urchins, boys and a few girls, constantly on secret errands, ran up and down the warehouse stairs and in and out of the dojo throughout the average day and far into the average night.

My regimen was to spend between one and two hours a day exercising in the dojo. I usually exercised in the late afternoons. I dropped by occasionally and unexpected from time to time. There were always a few to a half-dozen or so club members either working out or milling around the desk. Most were just kids. I didn’t know who came and went or what went on when I was not there.

I came to recognize several of these kids as familiar faces because they would frequent the same alleyway row of rough makgeolli (Korean rice wine) bars and pork rib dives that were my favorite hangouts after dark. They were located just beyond the back door of the warehouse and accessible by a pedestrian bridge across a pungent open sewer that fed into the boat harbor, located several hundred yards downstream.

These cheap rib and wine houses had what I thought at the time was “real character.” I spent many enjoyable, solitary evening hours in a chosen few of their smoky, low-ceilinged attics, casually soaking up all the rich sensory aspects of waterfront local color with my rice wine. Into these decadent dens came the dojo boys to sell gum and to gather discarded pork and beef ribs, and chicken bones, tossed by customers upon the floor. Management would eventually holler at the kids and stage a poor performance of chasing them out. These were rough joints in a rough neighborhood full of roughnecks. But the locals were tight and righteous according to their own rules. Nobody was going to let anybody starve to death in this earthy neighborhood.

Back to the dojo: Compared to gyms back in the USA Mr. Bu’s gym appeared poorly equipped. Indeed, none of the equipment reflected light. There was no chrome or even stainless steel anywhere in the place. Instead there was mainly cement, some wood and at most a bucket full of iron. Mr. Bu’s dojo resembled more a medieval dungeon than anything close to a private gym in America. Yet, what little weight-lifting equipment that was there easily surpassed my “sufficient and necessary” list for what it required for me to systematically build muscle and be buff.

Granted, the workout benches wobbled dangerously. The weights I lifted were imperfectly round discs cast in pairs from primitive cement molds. The paired discs were of different sizes, and thus had different weight values. All the discs were thick. Each disk had a round hole in its center just large enough to accommodate the insertion and removal of the ends of a six foot-long 1-1/4 inch steel water pipe with its center wrapped in medical tape.

The author on the roof of Mr. Bu’s dojo, with Moondoggy, 1973. Photo courtesy David Nemeth.

The author on the roof of Mr. Bu’s dojo, with Moondoggy, 1973. Photo courtesy David Nemeth.

The floors in the gym were also cement. If you dropped cement discs hard on the cement floor, odds were that the discs would shatter. The bucketful of iron contained a few pairs of mostly lightweight, rust-stained iron dumbbells. There was no shower in the dojo, but I think Mr. Bu and the boys had a shower located somewhere on the first floor that they used. But they never took me there. That was about it. The whole place was day lit through a few windows. The walls and ceiling were also cement.

Above that ceiling was a roof, accessible from an extension of the same staircase that led to the door of the dojo. There was an unlocked door from the top of the stairway that opened onto the roof.

Between exercise sets on hot summer days, when there was no breeze blowing off the harbor to cool the dojo through its few open windows, I would climb up to the rooftop to escape the stifling heat and the pungent stench of sweat mixed with whatever it was that was stockpiled in those third-floor rooms stacked with bulging burlap bags. From the high roof top I could wander the edges of the warehouse to view the four quarters and the goings-on of the city folk below.

Far to the south loomed majestic Mt. Halla. Near to the east rose Sarabong. To the north, stinking of diesel oil and fish was portside. To the west lay the bulk of Old Jeju City through which Chilsung-ro (Seven Stars Road) was the principal pedestrian path wending away from the tawdry foot of my warehouse gym to eventually become, at safe distance, the major upscale shopping district in Jeju City at that time.

Life was good. I looked and felt like a Greek god overlooking my world from atop a backwater Mount Olympus.


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